Dan Neil, an LA Times entertainment writer, takes this lesson from the GM bankruptcy:
The final chapter of that merger plays out this week as GM weathers a reorganization that will leave the federal government owning 70% of the company. In the midst of the deepest recession since the 1930s, it’s hard not to see GM’s bankruptcy as a signal moment in a larger history. If mighty GM can fail, cannot also the United States? And the answer is, absolutely.
This is the lesson of GM’s bankruptcy, and it has little to do with market share and miles per gallon. It’s a rebuff of the notion of exceptionalism. Any organization that fails to sufficiently safeguard its means of self-correction and reform, that forsakes long-term investment for short-term gain, that piles up debt year after year, will eventually fail, no matter how grand its history or noble its purpose. If you don’t feel the tingle of national mortality in all this, you’re not paying attention.
While I essentially agree with the thrust of his point, I don’t think the term “exceptionalism” as it is used when speaking of America, has anything to do with flouting the laws of economics. They are called “laws” for a reason, and no one has yet to find an “exception” to them. We have, however, discovered over and over again that attempts to make exceptions to them fail miserably.
The exceptionalism most speak of when they use the term in conjunction with America has to do with law, ethics and philosophy of life – the foundations of the country that make it exceptional. But economics? Of course we can “fail” if we do the stupid things we’re doing. And, unfortunately, we seem bound and determined right now to prove that point. But that has nothing to do with our “exceptionalism”.
From the White House Blog in an entry written by Norm Eisen, special counsel to the president for ethics and government reform in “the spirit of transparancy”:
… [T]he President’s March 20, 2009 Memorandum on Ensuring Responsible Spending of Recovery Act Funds. Section 3 of the Memorandum required all oral communications between federally registered lobbyists and government officials concerning Recovery Act policy to be disclosed on the Internet; barred registered lobbyists from having oral communications with government officials about specific Recovery Act projects or applications and instead required those communications to be in writing; and also required those written communications to be posted on the Internet.
However, a couple of changes have been made, among them:
First, we will expand the restriction on oral communications to cover all persons, not just federally registered lobbyists. For the first time, we will reach contacts not only by registered lobbyists but also by unregistered ones, as well as anyone else exerting influence on the process. We concluded this was necessary under the unique circumstances of the stimulus program.
So thinking this through, could “anyone” include a TV or print reporter asking an oral question to a government official concerning Recovery Ac Policy? Or a particular Recovery Act project that might impact their viewership or readership? Is it possible the information provided, if government officials are subjected to such oral scrutiny, might end up “exerting influence on the process”?
How about a concerned citizen who happens to be a blogger?
Doesn’t this give government officials the cover to duck such oral inquiries? How does that enhance transparency?
And ultimately, doesn’t this smack of a wee bit of a conflict with the 1st Amendment (free speech, free press, the right to petition government)?
And if “the unique circumstances of the stimulus program” are enough to limit 1st Amendment rights, per this paragon of “ethics and government reform, what other “unique circumstances” might be cited in the future to do the same sort of thing, given the precedent this sets?
This is the Camel’s nose under the tent, being poked because of special circumstances.
“Lobbyists and organizations that lobby complained that the White House’s restrictions on lobbying on stimulus fund projects were discriminatory and unfair because the same restrictions didn’t apply to people like corporate executives or officials. So these memorandumly noted changes address that fairness issue by expanding the ban on orally petitioning the government or expressing one’s views through speech. In the interests of transparency the First Amendment must be sacrificed.
“The restrictions are also ambiguous enough that a lobbyist or other petitioner won’t be sure how to fully comply. So if someone runs afoul of White House officials, a phone call to a news outlet or a friendly prosecutor can punish the offender. Ambiguous rules plus capricious application equals negative rule of law.”
The only transparency in this process is the fact that the White House is telling you the rule. But the rule then precludes oral questioning which might make the process even more transparent. If even the remote possibility exists that such communication might “exert influence on the process” then it is prohibited.
The White House’s apparent intent is to run a transparent process. The result is overreaching by the executive branch with poorly thought through restrictions on speech that are seemingly unconstitutional. The problem is they obviously don’t feel that to be the case. Or if they do, they think they should have the right to restrict certain forms of communication between government and anyone they decide if “unique circumstances” are existent (guess who get’s to determine whether they are or not?).
Frankly that should bother you.
However, fear not – I’m sure those that continually cited the Bush administration for alleged expansion of executive power will be among the first to address this obvious abuse of Constitutional power and call for an immediate revocation of the rule.
Remember the uproar during the 2004 presidential election about supposed voter disenfranchisement and voter intimidation that allegedly took place in Florida. Reports of blacks being stopped at police roadblocks and turned away from voting places? The Civil Rights Commission as well as numerous media outlets descended on the state in an attempt to validate the rumors. The story remains an urban myth to this day despite the fact that no evidence of any of that taking place was found.
Fast forward to the 2008 election and these video tapes:
What you would expect to happen, at the time and given the video evidence, happened:
The incident – which gained national attention when it was captured on videotape and distributed on YouTube – had prompted the government to sue the men, saying they violated the 1965 Voting Rights Act by scaring would-be voters with the weapon, racial slurs and military-style uniforms.
Career lawyers pursued the case for months, including obtaining an affidavit from a prominent 1960s civil rights activist who witnessed the confrontation and described it as “the most blatant form of voter intimidation” that he had seen, even during the voting rights crisis in Mississippi a half-century ago.
What happened next, however, wasn’t expected, although for most it comes as no real surprise:
The career Justice lawyers were on the verge of securing sanctions against the men earlier this month when their superiors ordered them to reverse course, according to interviews and documents. The court had already entered a default judgment against the men on April 20.
Got that? A default judgment. A done deal. Guilty.
But they were ordered to drop the charges and case and settle for this:
A Justice Department spokesman on Thursday confirmed that the agency had dropped the case, dismissing two of the men from the lawsuit with no penalty and winning an order against the third man that simply prohibits him from bringing a weapon to a polling place in future elections.
Ed Morrisey asks the pertinent question:
Recall, please, that Democrats screamed about the supposed politicization at Justice during Alberto Gonzales’ tenure as Attorney General for replacing political appointees who serve at the pleasure of the President. They claimed that the replacement of nine US Attorneys was a plan by the Bush administration, supposedly through Karl Rove and Harriet Miers, to affect the outcome of investigations and prosecutions. It touched off a Constitutional fight over executive privilege that continues to this day, as the House and Senate Judiciary Committees are still conducting its “investigations” into this supposed politicization.
This looks significantly more like politicization of outcomes that anything alleged during the Bush administration, especially since the DoJ already won the case. In fact, the government had prepared arguments for penalties against the men as late as May 5th, before the political commissars under Attorney General Eric Holder ordered them to withdraw. Holder, during his confirmation hearing, had called career DoJ lawyers his “teachers” and the “backbone” of Justice. Apparently, the political leadership trumps teachers and backbone when it comes to voter intimidation on behalf of Barack Obama.
So will the same Congressional committees open an investigation into this reversal to benefit voter intimidation on behalf of the administration?
Just as important, will the same portion of the leftosphere which went berserk over Gonzo and made a cottage industry of the allegations treat this obvious politicization of justice the same way they treated the alleged politicization by the Bush administration?
Methinks probably not. Let the spinning (or ignoring) begin.
It would be the perfect ending to Specter’s desperate attempt to hold on to his office by switching parties. TPM is reporting:
Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA) is privately telling supporters that he intends to run for Senate, TPMDC has confirmed.
“He intends to get in the race,” says Meg Infantino, the Congressman’s sister, who works at Sestak for Congress. “In the not too distant future, he will sit down with his wife and daughter to make the final decision.”
The move would constitute a primary challenge to Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA), who intends to run for re-election in 2010, after having switched parties earlier this year.
Sestak is a retired Navy Admiral in a time when that’s a very good thing to be, especially if your primary opponent is Arlen Specter. I have no idea how a state wide race would shape up for the two sides, but in a Democratic primary I can’t help but believe Sestak would trounce Specter. And deservedly so. Everything I’m reading is PA Dems are having a very hard time warming up to Specter. Think about it, how can you take seriously a guy who switched parties simply because he knew he’d get killed in a Republican primary and claimed he never promised to be “a good Democrat?”
Sure sounds like it to me:
A transcript of a secretly recorded phone call between the brother of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and U.S. Sen. Roland Burris was released in federal court today, a call in which Burris, then seeking the Senate seat, was recorded offering the Blagojevich campaign a campaign check.
“I know I could give him a check,” Burris said. “Myself.”
But in the same call, Burris tells Robert Blagojevich he is concerned he and Rod Blagojevich will “catch hell.”
“And if I do get appointed that means I bought it,” Burris said.
“And, and God knows number one, I, I wanna help Rod,” Burris says later in the call. “Number two, I also wanna, you know, hope I get a consideration to get that appointment.”
The culture of corruption on steroids – or as a friend says, “the ususal Chicago politics”. Of course Burris would never voluntarily give up the seat and would most likely have to be dragged from the Senate kicking and screaming.
Any chance the Democrats will clean their own house?
Yeah, that’s a joke.
Another emerging hallmark of Obama rhetoric are the startling inconsistencies to be found there. For instance, his speech at the National Archives where he invoked the founding documents as the keepers of our fundamental rights and values and condemned the previous administration for its egregious violations of those right and values. All of it sounded lofty and certainly rhetorically satisfying. But then, within a few paragraphs, Obama trots out his policy plan for indefinite detention for those who we even suspect of wishing to do violence against the US.
And it was the past administration which did what that was so bad?
Even Sen. Russ Feingold can’t quite stomach the inconsistency:
While I recognize that your administration inherited detainees who, because of torture, other forms of coercive interrogations, or other problems related to their detention or the evidence against them, pose considerable challenges to prosecution, holding them indefinitely without trial is inconsistent with the respect for the rule of law that the rest of your speech so eloquently invoked. Indeed, such detention is a hallmark of abusive systems that we have historically criticized around the world.
Gitmo is a place. And places can be shut down. But what Obama is talking about is a policy – a policy of government – in which people can be incarcerated without charges and held for as long as the government deems necessary. How again is that a difference from the previous administration? How is that better?
Once a system of indefinite detention without trial is established, the temptation to use it in the future would be powerful. And, while your administration may resist such a temptation, future administrations may not. There is a real risk, then, of establishing policies and legal precedents that rather than ridding our country of the burden of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, merely set the stage for future Guantanamos, whether on our shores or elsewhere, with disastrous consequences for our national security.
I had to laugh at this – “resist such a temptation”? For heaven sake Senator, his administration is suggesting the policy! Why would he “resist the temptation” when it is obvious that his administration sees it as a necessary tool to combat threats against the US?
Worse, those policies and legal precedents would be effectively enshrined as acceptable in our system of justice, having been established not by one, largely discredited administration, but by successive administrations of both parties with greatly contrasting positions on legal and constitutional issues….
And that’s the point, isn’t it? Once it becomes policy – once it is enshrined in law (and I’m not, at this point, at all sure how the SCOTUS would rule on such a law although I’m certainly sure on how I think they should rule) it is open to use and abuse by government. So while we may or may not agree with what the previous administration did, in this regard, they never tried to make it policy and an legally blessed (but morally wrong) method of handling those we capture and incarcerate in this war against Islamic extremism.
Anyone monitoring what Barack Obama has been saying since taking the oath of office who doesn’t see a rather large authoritarian streak in the man hasn’t been paying attention. What he is suggesting is blatantly worse than what the Bush administration did. Unfortunately, it is mostly being lost in the ground clutter of the financial crisis. But it is certainly there for those who take the time to look.
I hesitate to call it bankruptcy when it is really a sham of a bankruptcy. In fact, it is the same sham that Chrysler has undergone:
The government previously indicated that it planned to take at least 50 percent of the restructured company, and likely would take the right to name members to its board of directors, as it has at Chrysler, where the government will control four of nine seats.
The United Auto Workers retiree health fund is set to own as much as 39 percent of the restructured GM, in exchange for giving up its claim to at least $10 billion that the company owes it. Yesterday, the union announced that it reached an agreement with GM that will reduce the company’s labor costs.
Still unknown is what part the Canadian government might play in the ongoing GM restructuring.
GM operates several plants north of the border. The Canadians agreed to invest about $3.5 billion in the Chrysler restructuring and control one of the nine board seats.
Sound familiar? So government will now have 5 of 9 board seats, the union has a huge share of the company and bondholders?
The chief obstacle to an out-of-court settlement for GM remains: There has been no agreement between the company and the investors who hold $27 billion worth of GM bonds.
Under orders from the Obama administration, GM has offered to give the bondholders a 10 percent equity stake in the restructured company in exchange for giving up their bonds.
That’s the offer made and, as you might imagine, bondholders are resisting this. That, of course, gives the administration the same excuse it used to take Chrysler to bankruptcy under its apparently newly written rules which gave government the lion’s share of ownership.
As you might imagine, not everyone is happy. And since this “bankruptcy” is now being politically managed, more politicians are getting into the act.
For instance, on the subject of cutting Chrysler dealerships:
There are also challenges outside court. Chrysler has moved to close 789 dealerships on June 9. But Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) has introduced legislation that would withhold federal funding if the automaker does not give dealers an extra 60 days to close down operations and sell remaining inventory. Her amendment has won the backing of a number of other senators.
Should such legislation pass, you can expect something similar with GM.
And some Democrats aren’t particularly happy either:
Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) said he hopes to meet with White House officials today to discuss changing Chrysler’s bankruptcy plan and GM’s future. Conyers did not outline what he wanted, but a nine-person panel he assembled for a hearing yesterday offered a hint. Liberal consumer advocate Ralph Nader, a conservative Heritage Foundation analyst and minority auto dealers all criticized the automakers’ restructuring.
Conyers and other committee members attacked the administration for abusing bankruptcy laws, unfairly eliminating dealerships and jeopardizing consumer safety.
Yup, looks like the political bureaucracy is kicking into high-gear and you can just imagine how well this is going to work out, can’t you? That and the fact that contracts will never be viewed in the same light again have to make you fear for our economic future.
First we have the “car czar” threatening investors with audits and vilification, and now we have a report that a union was inappropriately involved in matters in which it should not have been included:
Officials in the governor’s office say a politically powerful union may have had inappropriate influence over the Obama administration’s decision to withhold billions of dollars in federal stimulus money from California if the state does not reverse a scheduled wage cut for the labor group’s workers.
The officials say they are particularly troubled that the Service Employees International Union, which lobbied the federal government to step in, was included in a conference call in which state and federal officials reviewed the wage cut and the terms of the stimulus package.
The SEIU is of the opinion the state is “breaking the law” as it concerns the use of “stimulus” funds. The state sees it otherwise. But that doesn’t explain the inclusion of the union on the call. Said state officials:
During the conference call, state officials say, they were asked to defend the $74-million cut scheduled to take effect July 1. The cut lowers the state’s maximum contribution to home health workers’ pay from $12.10 per hour to $10.10.
The California officials on the call, who requested anonymity for fear of antagonizing the Obama administration, said they needed the savings to help balance the state budget.
Most know that California is a budgetary basket case, but they should also know that SEIU members are the one’s effected by the cut. The phrase which is most chilling in the last cite is that which indicates a fear of “antagonizing the Obama administration” among state workers.
Is that really the atmosphere that should exist between the states and the feds? And, given their inclusion in the call, isn’t it fair to claim that the SEIU has had “undue” influence with the administration?
So how is this different than the alleged inappropriate lobbyist influence the left liked to holler about during the Bush years?
Rep. Jane Harman , the California Democrat with a longtime involvement in intelligence issues, was overheard on an NSA wiretap telling a suspected Israeli agent that she would lobby the Justice Department reduce espionage-related charges against two officials of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, the most powerful pro-Israel organization in Washington.
Harman was recorded saying she would “waddle into” the AIPAC case “if you think it’ll make a difference,” according to two former senior national security officials familiar with the NSA transcript … In exchange for Harman’s help, the sources said, the suspected Israeli agent pledged to help lobby Nancy Pelosi , D-Calif., then-House minority leader, to appoint Harman chair of the Intelligence Committee after the 2006 elections, which the Democrats were heavily favored to win.
Seemingly wary of what she had just agreed to, according to an official who read the NSA transcript, Harman hung up after saying, “This conversation doesn’t exist.”
The fact that Harman was recorded via an NSA wiretap has some in the blogosphere declaring a victory for irony:
There’s a large poetic justice factor here in that Harman has been a big defender of potentially abusive surveillance so she doesn’t, personally, have much to stand on as an opponent of abusive surveillance when applied to her.
Thinking about that further reenforces (sic) the point that selective, unaccountable surveillance is very dangerous. A president could do a great deal to gin up pretexts to wiretap members of congress and blackmail them even without the members doing anything unusually egregious. But it’s also a reminder that we have a political system that’s substantially powered by a kind of systematic, quasi-legalized bribery.
Matthew Yglesias’ self-righteousness is supposedly justified by the fact that Rep. Harman backed the Bush Administration’s terrorist surveillance program, fondly remembered by the left as the inappropriately named “domestic warrantless wiretapping” program. However, Harman was not caught on tape by that program, but instead via a regular, old court-approved wiretap:
It’s true that allegations of pro-Israel lobbyists trying to help Harman get the chairmanship of the intelligence panel by lobbying and raising money for Pelosi aren’t new.
They were widely reported in 2006, along with allegations that the FBI launched an investigation of Harman that was eventually dropped for a “lack of evidence.”
What is new is that Harman is said to have been picked up on a court-approved NSA tap directed at alleged Israel covert action operations in Washington.
Nevertheless, thanks to Harman’s transgressions against the anti-war/anti-Bush left, in the form of her support of anti-terrorism activities, she is not getting any sympathy from Democrats. Which is a shame because it doesn’t necessarily appear that she’s done anything wrong here.
Because the article provides a paucity of specific information, I’m hard-pressed to figure out what Harman’s illegal action could have been. All the allegations are to unnamed sources, and there is no indication of what the supposed illegal activity was. The insinuation is that, based on earlier reports, Harman would help out AIPAC in return for the lobbying group raising money for Pelosi, who would then show her appreciation by promoting Harman to the Chairmanship of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Yet the facts as alleged don’t even support that theory.
First of all, there is nothing wrong with Harman “waddling into” the AIPAC case merely to advocate for a lighter sentence for the Israeli defendant accused of spying. It may not have been smart, nor exactly savory, but it would not have been illegal as far as I know. If instead Harman had tried to use her official powers to alter the outcome someway (which is not alleged), I could see wher there may some problems. Merely making a case for a lighter sentence does not even begin to rise to that level, however.
Furthermore, I’m not so sure that there is any real quid pro quo here. If after Harman “waddled into” the spy case, AIPAC went to Nancy Pelosi and said “that Harman chick is one swell gal! You should promote to the head of Senate intelligence panel, or something,” what would be the problem? Does AIPAC not have the freedom of speech to say they like one congressman over another? Some might think that AIPAC is a foreign lobbyist firm (it’s not), and thus should be restricted from certain activities with respect to supporting political appointments, but that’s not true. Foreign lobbyists are more restricted when it comes to elections, but no lobbyist is prevented from advocating for the appointment of an already elected official to committee assignment or the like. So, again, based on the information provided, I’m just not sure what the charge is here.
Interestingly enough, if there is anyone who should be worried about this latest report (assuming any of it is true), it is Alberto Gonzales. According to Stein’s article, other than the fact that Harman was caught on tape, the only other new news here is that “contrary to reports that the Harman investigation was dropped for ‘lack of evidence,’ it was Alberto R. Gonzales, President Bush’s top counsel and then attorney general, who intervened to stop the Harman probe.”
Why? Because, according to three top former national security officials, Gonzales wanted Harman to be able to help defend the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, which was about break in The New York Times and engulf the White House.
As for there being “no evidence” to support the FBI probe, a source with first-hand knowledge of the wiretaps called that “bull****.”
The identity of the “suspected Israeli agent” could not be determined with certainty, and officials were extremely skittish about going beyond Harman’s involvement to discuss other aspects of the NSA eavesdropping operation against Israeli targets, which remain highly classified.
But according to the former officials familiar with the transcripts, the alleged Israeli agent asked Harman if she could use any influence she had with Gonzales, who became attorney general in 2005, to get the charges against the AIPAC officials reduced to lesser felonies.
Harman responded that Gonzales would be a difficult task, because he “just follows White House orders,” but that she might be able to influence lesser officials, according to an official who read the transcript.
According to the rest of the story, the Justice Department and the CIA were ready to conduct a full scale investigation of Harman because of the transcripts, but Gonzales stepped in and stopped it because he needed her help:
According to two officials privy to the events, Gonzales said he “needed Jane” to help support the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, which was about to be exposed by the New York Times.
Harman, he told Goss, had helped persuade the newspaper to hold the wiretap story before, on the eve of the 2004 elections. And although it was too late to stop the Times from publishing now, she could be counted on again to help defend the program
He was right.
On Dec. 21, 2005, in the midst of a firestorm of criticism about the wiretaps, Harman issued a statement defending the operation and slamming the Times, saying, “I believe it essential to U.S. national security, and that its disclosure has damaged critical intelligence capabilities.”
Pelosi and Hastert never did get the briefing.
And thanks to grateful Bush administration officials, the investigation of Harman was effectively dead.
The problem with this version of the story is that it fails to allege what wrongdoing Harman was being accused of. Lots of “sources familiar with the transcript” are quoted, although none are named, and not a single person identified which statute or regulation Harman allegedly violated. Why is that?
Of course, regardless of whether Harman had actually committed any crime, if Gonzales called the dogs off for political reasons (as the story asserts), then he has a problem. I don’t think it would be obstruction of justice per se since, after all, he was head of the DoJ. Short-circuiting a criminal investigation for political gain, however, is exactly the sort of use of public office that Harman appears to be accused of in the Stein story.
At this point it is difficult, if not impossible, to tell exactly what happened. There are tiny whiffs of spice conjured up here there, but no real meat on any of the bones. Stein even admits at the end of his story that none of the supposed gains bargained for were actually realized:
Ironically, however, nothing much was gained by it.
The Justice Department did not back away from charging AIPAC officials Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman for trafficking in classified information.
Gonzales was engulfed by the NSA warrantless wiretapping scandal.
And Jane Harman was relegated to chairing a House Homeland Security subcommittee.
All of which calls the veracity of the story into question. I don’t know what actually went down, and apparently neither does anyone else whose willing to be named. Until there are some solid facts produced and names put behind them, this whole “scandal” looks pretty contrived in my opinion. Which really just leaves two questions: (1) Why this old story now, and (2) Cui bono? Your guess is as good as mine.
I have to admit to some surprise in seeing Michael’s post on torture below. QandO has been pretty much opposed to the use of torture, and we’ve taken some heat for it every time the subject has come up. But, once you open up a libertarian blog to others to write for it, and tell them to feel free to write their own opinions without prejudice or favor, then, before you know it, they go off getting ideas of their own, disagreeing with you, and generally acting with an outrageous sense of independence.
What’re you gonna do?
I understand the attraction of torture, both on utilitarian grounds, and in terms of what I will call “emotional reciprocity”, so I won’t re-cover Michael’s arguments, tendered, as they are, more inquisitively than asseveratively.
When I speak of “torture”, I want to be sure that we all have the same thing in mind when I use the word. So I will define it here as the intentional application of physical pain, accompanied by the possibility of permanent injury, scarring, derangement, or death. This will, I think, encompass the entire spectrum pf physical discomfort comfort from beatings to anything else more severe. I specifically reject a definition of torture that includes psychological pressure, such as putting a particularly nasty-looking beetle in the cell of a prisoner who’s afraid of bugs. I also reject questioning methods as sleep deprivation for a couple of days, or discomfort from keeping the air conditioning too low as torture. These things might be unpleasant, but they are not physically or mentally harmful in any significant sense.
It’s possible to construct any number of scenarios in which torture is acceptable–perhaps even moral. But that doesn’t negate the general rule that torture is, in fact, wrong.To continue, I would then proceed to the question, “Is torture always wrong?” Well, that’s a silly formulation of the question. In every human action, context matters. I think there is general agreement that lying is generally wrong, yet if a terrified woman approaches us and pleads for us to hide her from a crazed stalker who intends to kill her, I think there is also general agreement that if the stalker subsequently approaches us, we would have a positive moral duty to lie to the stalker and deny any knowledge of her whereabouts. There might also be general agreement that lying has a social purpose at times, in the sense that the answer to the question “Does this dress make me look fat?” is pretty much always, “No.”
In light of the above, it’s possible, then, to construct any number of scenarios in which torture is acceptable–perhaps even moral. But that doesn’t negate the general rule that torture is, in fact, wrong, in the widest range of circumstances. If we actually believe in all that stuff about “inalienable rights”, then certainly the right not to have hot needles shoved under our nails is one of them.
Beyond that, however, we enter a terrifically complicated area, when we begin to discuss giving the government the power to have recourse to torture as a matter of policy. As a practical matter, it is nearly impossible to construct a system in which any official sanction to torture will not inevitably spiral out of control. Once a set of rules is in place–any set of rules–there will inevitably be torture imposed on anyone on whom an official wishes to impose it. Officials will ensure that the rules will apply to the persons they wish to torture. Sure, the guy may look like an innocent Kabul taxi driver, but there will always be an official who “knows” better, and who will ensure that all the proper boxes are checked before the flensing knives are brought out.
We have elaborate rules, for instance, covering the issuance of search warrants, and severe criminal and civil sanctions for their abuse, yet, oddly enough, police agencies fairly routinely deliver no-knock drug warrants on innocent homeowners, which, not infrequently, result in homeowners or policemen getting shot. Or in the case of 90 year-old Kathryn Johnson in Atlanta several months ago, police just ignore those rules, and seek to provide creative ex post facto justifications. In that case, of course, we learned that such actions were not at all uncommon in portions of the Atlanta PD.
It is nearly impossible to construct a system in which any official sanction to torture will not inevitably spiral out of control.Providing legal sanction to use torture invites similar overzealousness on the part of officials. Moreover, if the government can point to some cases of torture’s utility, the pressure to increase the range of acceptable subjects will inevitably increase–just as the drug war has increased the incidence of no-knock warrants being issued to “take down” non-violent drug offenders. And, frankly, we haven’t done a very good job of guarding the slippery slope in these and similar areas of government activity.
That doesn’t make me sanguine about giving the government the legal sanction to engage in torture, especially in an environment where heathen foreigners will be on the receiving end of it, and their redress in case of mistakes are…limited. That seems to me to have all the element necessary for an unconscionable abuse of power.
Now, let’s look at the question of whether torture works. That answer to that is, yes, but not reliably. There are a number of celebrated cases in World War II where French or Yugoslav partisans were captured by the Germans, turned over to the Gestapo, and essentially tortured to death without telling the Germans anything. We also have, conversely, literally thousands of “confessions” of witchcraft during the Inquisition, extracted under torture.
What does that tell us? Well, nothing really that we didn’t already know, which is that if you wish to get a suspect to talk, 220 volts to the genitals will probably work better than a medium-rare steak au poivre with shallots, and a robust glass of Côte de Nuits.
Whether the subject can be relied upon to tell you the truth, or just what he thinks you want to hear, is more problematic. Torture can work–by which I mean you can receive reliable information from it– through the following iterative process:
1) The subject can be induced to talk through physical pain. You can eventually get someone to tell you something, if enough torture is applied. To ensure that something is useful,
2) You must be able to verify the subject’s information in whole, and provide…correction if any part of the subject’s statement appears to be untrue.
You must be able to repeat the above steps until the subject is convinced of your ability to verify his statements and punish evasions or subterfuges. This can, needless to say, become an elaborate process. If you can’t go through the process, then you don’t really know if you’re getting reliable information from it, or if the subject is shining you on to obtain relief. Perhaps he’s telling you the truth. Perhaps he’s just getting you to look askance at an innocent taxi driver in Kabul.
Moreover, if it really is ineffectual, why does it continue to happen? Clearly, somebody somewhere is getting results.
Two things come to mind.
First, the vast majority of torture use, both historically, and in the modern world among those regimes that use it, is directed to obtaining confessions of guilt from criminal suspects. It comes as no surprise that it’s highly effective at obtaining them. Again, I refer to the Inquisition, where the possibility of death at some unspecified future date became more attractive than than the prospect of a continuance on the rack in the present case.
Second, as I wrote previously, torture does provide more information than would be obtained by abstaining from it. One wonders, however, how much of that information is actually reliable, as opposed to how much of that information is beleived to be reliable by officials. Or simply politically convenient. Those two latter things may not, in fact, be the same as the former.
Finally, the question arises, “who do we torture?” Certainly, every real terror suspect has some knowledge that can be useful. Do we get to torture all of them? Most of the justifications I’ve seen would give us the option to torture someone in a ticking bomb scenario. Which sounds nice…if you actually know there’s a ticking bomb. In the normal scheme of things, though, you really need to torture people to find out if a ticking bomb exists, not to figure out where it is.
The vast majority of torture use among those regimes that use it, is directed to obtaining confessions of guilt from criminal suspects. It comes as no surprise that it’s highly effective at obtaining them.Or do we just torture the higher-ups in the terrorist movement, as a sort of fishing expedition? This is, I gather, the justification for the interrogation techniques used on some of the al Qaeda biggies. We thought they were up to something, and we used harsh interrogation to find out what they knew.
The most interesting thing about that is that we didn’t have to brand these guys with hot pokers to get them to give it up. These guys apparently have little resistance. Threaten to open a box of StayFree® Maxi-Pads in front of them, and they sing like superstars. So maybe we got lucky in that some of these guys were easy marks.
But, as the Gestapo experience of WWII shows, sometimes, people will let you torture them to death without telling you anything. Even in Vietnam, our POWs in Hanoi would resist real, actual torture for extended periods before giving up a “confession” to their captors.
But I digress.
Either you are going to define the torture-liable population so broadly, that officials will pretty much have a license to torture, or so narrowly that, as a practical matter, you’ll never use it. If the former, you’ve got a slippery slope problem, if the latter, it’s not useful enough to even worry about sanctioning it, rather than just worrying about it on an ad hoc basis.
Jonah Goldberg has written often about the unwritten law, vs. the written law. Fifty years ago, it was against the law for the police to dispense street justice. In practice, the beat cop, who walked the same neighborhood day after day and who knew the residents, would occasionally rough up some troublemakers pour encourager les autres, and in so doing, kept the peace on his block. It wasn’t legally sanctioned, but it worked–and the cop knew that when he did it, he was risking at least his career, if it became a problem.
For a variety of reasons discussed above, as well as other, more prudential reasons in terms of the country’s image, and diplomatic reputation, I’d prefer never to see torture be enshrined in the written law.
I’ve noted before that, when I was on active duty, if I’d ever been faced with getting caught behind enemy lines in a Soviet attack in Europe, I would like to have the option of capturing a Russian officer, and finding out how to get back to our lines. And, if I had to hook up a field telephone, and make a collect call to his genitals, I’d do it without blinking, if that’s what it took to get my guys back home alive.
I wouldn’t brag about it, or mention it to anyone in responsible authority later, but if I got found out, I’d expect to take the Court-Martial. And, as long as I’d gotten my guys out, I’d have been happy to do it.
Necessity, it’s often said, knows no law. But the law shouldn’t explicitly bow to necessity. I would rather have it understood that any torture inflicted is done without sanction, and the official authorizing the torture may be in danger of serious sanctions if he uses it.
It’s probably not the best solution. But, on balance, I think it’s a better solution than giving the government explicit permission to conduct torture however they see fit. Torture is problematic for a number of reasons, and the ethics of engaging in it are, at the very least, difficult to parse. And, as Michael should well know, “hard cases make bad law”.
UPDATE [McQ]: What Dale said.